Traditional sayings and expressions, even clichés, are a useful part of communication. If you’re going to use them, you might as well do it correctly.
For example, most people who use a certain metaphor to describe someone very eager to do something say it this way: “John is chomping at the bit to get in the game.” In fact, the correct term is champing at the bit. The metaphor is a comparison to a horse. “Champ” is a verb that means to chew vigorously as a horse would do to the bit in its mouth when excited. Unfortunately, if you, correctly, say champing, most people look at you strangely.
Then there’s the misuse of “begging the question.” (A fallacy identified by Aristotle.) Here’s an example. A police detective questions John and asks: “Where were you on the night of June 6th when Tom was murdered? John answers, “I couldn’t have killed him; I’m not a murderer.”
John has just “begged the question” by evading it. His answer was a circular argument that offered no evidence. It simply assumed its premise. In effect he said, “I didn’t kill him because I didn’t kill him.”
If you’re thinking John’s answer is insufficient and that the question calls for a direct answer, you’re right. It does. And you might insist or even “beg” John to answer the question directly, but that’s not what begging the question means. John begged the question. You begged for an answer.
If you’ve heard someone use the expression, “hoist on his own petard,” your mental image might be a medieval villain elevated and impaled on his own spear. Actually, in years gone by, a “petard” was a small bomb. “Hoist” is a transitive verb meaning to raise up or, in this case blow up. Which is why the correct expression is “hoist by his own petard,” not on. It could be a case of poetic justice for someone caught in a trap he’d set for another. Like a suicide bomber blowing himself up.
“Problematic” can be a very useful term. It’s especially appropriate for important issues, for instance: “The effects of climate change on the Earth in the present and future as caused by human activity compared to the effects of solar and extraterrestrial occurrences, along with practical remedies for it are highly problematic.” In that sense, the term involves a problem that is extremely complicated, difficult to overcome, and confounded by debatable and uncertain outcomes. Here’s another example: “Dealing with Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorism after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan will be problematic.”
“Problematic” has recently become a fashionable cliché in the media, adopted by many who fail to appreciate its scope and complexity, applying it too casually. They’ll say things like, “Denver’s Japanese Beetles in the summer are problematic.” Or, “Construction delays on I-25 between Denver and Colorado Springs are problematic.” The term doesn’t mean simply annoying or troublesome. There’s a perfectly good word for these kinds of lesser matters. It’s the baby sister of “problematic.” Just drop the last four letters and call them a “problem.”
“Politically correct” does not really mean politically correct. The term was created by conservatives and is meant sarcastically. It refers to dogmatic, intolerant, radical left-wing beliefs, language and behavior that so-called progressives seek to impose on the rest of us.
While historically significant, the election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president was not “an” historic event. Grammatically, it was “a” historic event. If you can hear letter ‘h” in a word (home, hero) it’s preceded by the article “a.” If it’s silent (honor, herb), it’s preceded by “an.” Saying “an historic” may sound more elegant, but it’s incorrect.”
Oh, and it’s not “All intensive purposes.” It’s “All intents and purposes.”
Lastly, in the world of sports, “RBI” is an abbreviation for “runs batted in.” If Charlie Blackmon hits a homer with two men on base, he’s credited with three RBIs. A trendy affection of a few pretentious sportswriters and broadcasters is to say or write the term this way: “Blackmon got three RBI in the game.” They imagine it’s better grammar, as in saying “three runs batted in.” (RsBI?) They’re wrong. The abbreviation, “RBIs” is treated as a plural compound noun like AGs for attorneys general, or POWs for prisoners or war. You don’t say three POW. You say three POWs, three AGs and, likewise, three RBIs. In print, you write it as “an” RBI, the way it sounds, not “a” RBI. And in baseball jargon, if you’ve ever played the game, you say Charlie got three “ribbies.”
Michael Rosen is an American radio personality and political commentator.